McIntyre’s machine-gun “auditing” of scientific results from outside the traditional structure of peer review creates practical problems for researchers, Zorita admits, but in the aftermath of the CRU email leak “we now know that a team of gatekeepers have tried to scupper studies that contradict their own previous publications.” McIntyre “has brought up interesting points from time to time,” but his most important contribution may be to the culture of climate science.
“Years ago, very few people, me included, thought to make data available to other researchers for confirmation or refutation. Such inquiries were very rare in climate research.” Now, Zorita says, reviewers are more aggressive about asking for raw data and confirming that statistical calculations can be replicated.
Until 2003, nothing in McIntyre’s life suggested that he would assume a central role in one of history’s great scientific debates—yet that life, in retrospect, seems to have been equipping him for the role. The son of a surgeon, McIntyre had an impressive record of performance in math competitions as a young student attending the University of Toronto Schools. He is still proud of having once beaten older classmate Michael Spence—“he was a bit of a hero of mine”—who would eventually snag the Nobel memorial prize in economics (2001). McIntyre went on to obtain a math degree at the University of Toronto, where his social circle overlapped with that of Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. Graduating in 1969, he moved on to the philosophy, politics, and economics program at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
In short, climatology’s ultimate outsider had the upbringing of a privileged Canadian insider. By 1971, he had been offered the proverbial keys to the kingdom—a graduate scholarship to work on mathematical economics at MIT, where Paul Samuelson, a giant of 20th-century economics, was the presiding intellect. But McIntyre’s path took an unexpected turn when his parents went through what he calls “an ugly divorce.” “I was the oldest of six kids,” he says. “The youngest was just five years old. This was back when divorce was still all but unknown.” Feeling that he was needed at home, he turned MIT down and decided to seek a career in business.
McIntyre went to work for Noranda when the mining giant was in its heyday, and went on to perform in a hodgepodge of jobs for smaller resource exploration companies: property buyer, accounting overseer, director, executive. He occasionally left the private sector to serve as a government policy analyst; in the mid-’70s, for instance, he took leave from Noranda to work for ex-classmate Edmund Clark at the federal Anti-Inflation Board. McIntyre’s association with “Red Ed” (now the CEO of the Toronto-Dominion Bank) will surprise those who assume that a climate skeptic must be a rabid Republican, but as he puts it, “I live in downtown Toronto, and I have the politics of downtown Toronto.”
The world of mining is one in which everyone is constantly aware of how engineering results can be tampered with or misrepresented to rip off investors. And in 2003, when McIntyre first saw the hockey stick graph, it reminded him uncomfortably of some stock promoter’s over-optimistic revenue projection. McIntyre asked lead “hockey stick” author Michael Mann for the underlying data and was startled when Mann had trouble remembering where he had posted the files to the Internet. “That was when the penny dropped for me,” McIntyre says. “I had the sense that Mann was pulling together the data for the first time—that nobody had ever bothered to inquire independently into the hockey stick before.”
To McIntyre, a scientist’s data and code stand in the same relationship to a finished paper that drilling cores do to a mining company press release. “If you’re offering securities to the public,” McIntyre observed in a May 2008 talk at Ohio State University, “there are complicated and expensive processes of due diligence, involving audits of financial statements, independent engineering reports, opinions from securities lawyers and so on. There are laws requiring the disclosure of adverse results.” Peer review in scientific journals is good, he suggested, but it is limited and vulnerable to compromise. “There is far more independent due diligence on the smallest prospectus offering securities to the public than on a Nature article that might end up having a tremendous impact on policy.”
His surprise and indignation seem sincere. In the CRU emails Mann speculates wildly about how McIntyre is “funded,” but his work has required little more than free time, effort, knowledge of statistics and linear algebra, and some software. Indeed, McIntyre says his climate-research activities—which quickly snowballed from an idle interest into a virtual second career—cost him the chance to ride a boom period in mining. “A lot of my friends made out very well,” he says, “but I just didn’t have any chips on the table. The opportunity cost to me has been horrendous.”
Nevertheless, it doesn’t sound as though McIntyre has many regrets. He grows positively garrulous when he talks of how his efforts let him reconnect with his youthful interest in hard-core math. He is not the sort of person whose inquisitiveness stops at the doorstep, either. In October 2007 he led an excursion into the mountains near Colorado Springs, where he was able to find many of the bristlecone pines whose rings were core-sampled in the 1980s by key paleoclimate researcher Donald Graybill. McIntyre and a few friends even took their own core samples, undermining critics who argue that dendrochronology is an esoteric, equipment-intensive activity whose results are hard to reproduce or double-check.
McIntyre does admit, however, that the expedition presented unexpected difficulties. “We had a borrowed four-wheeler, which wasn’t really the right kind of vehicle for those roads: quads or a Jeep would have been better,” he adds. “We ended up doing a bit of damage, so that cost me a couple thousand dollars.” If it wasn’t already obvious, McIntyre is the sort of fellow who will go to an awful lot of trouble to make a point.
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